Social Equality an Individual Freedom

There are two basic questions about equality: Why equality? and, ?quality in what?. Analogously, the questions about freedom are: Why freedom? and, Freedom from what or for what? The “why” questions in both cases are questions about our justifications for the centrality of these values in our lives.

The question “Why equality?” is equivalent to “What is good about equality?” and similarly for freedom. Some people might deny the necessity of justifying equality or freedom. They see the question of what is good about equality or freedom as tantamount to the question of what is good about the good. There is nothing trivial or obvious, however, in the question of what is good about equality or even of what is good about freedom. Kant ( 1911 ), for example, thought that many of the evils that befall us come from inequality, but then he also thought that everything good in our lives comes from inequality. (Hirsch, 1996, pp. 55) These questions are actually so difficult that it would be better to consider the complementary questions of what is bad about inequality or restrictions on freedom, as these questions are clearer.

There are many bad things about various aspects of inequality, just as there are about various aspects of constraints on freedom, mainly coercion and manipulation. One of these bad things — perhaps the worst of them — is that sometimes manifestations of inequality, as well as of coercion or manipulation, are prime examples of humiliation, even though not all cases of inequality or even of coercion are humiliating. (Pound, 2004, pp. 211)

Acts and gestures of inequality or coercion are, in part, communicative acts that express a certain attitude towards those who are not equal or free. What these symbolic acts express, which is liable to be humiliating, is an attitude that sees the other as nonhuman. (Plant, 1994, pp. 52)

In general, inequality symbolically expresses an attitude of downgrading — the view that the other is inferior in the social hierarchy. If people’s social honor is injured, it does not necessarily mean that their humanity has been taken away. (Wilensky, 2003, pp. 11) There are, however, severe manifestations of inequality that express an attitude of degrading the inferior other — that is, hurting the other’s human dignity. (Sinfield, 1998, pp. 5) The humiliation involved in inequality is not necessarily a function of the degree of the inequality; rather, it depends on the meaning of the inequality. Coercion, like inequality, is also a communicative act, and it is similarly liable to be humiliating. (Hindess & Hirst, 1997, pp. 97)

A decent society is thus a society in which there is no humiliating institutional inequality or humiliating constraints on freedom. However, a decent society can tolerate inequality and lack of freedom as long as they are not humiliating, even if they are unjust and thus not tolerable by a just society.

The claim that a decent society cannot tolerate humiliating inequality or restrictions on freedom is not particularly informative. It does not provide a universal recipe for identifying these evils. The point is that humiliating inequality and coercion are symbolic acts, and the meaning of such acts depends on culture and interpretation. The lack of a universal criterion for identifying humiliation in inequality and coercion does not imply that there is nothing to say about the conditions under which inequality or coercion are accompanied by humiliation. (Powell, 1995, pp. 341)…